Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
The substitution of a new rifle for the old musket with which the sepoys had hitherto been armed entailed a different kind of drill; and in order that this drill should be speedily learned by the whole Native army, depots were formed at convenient places for the instruction of[Page 41] selected men from every corps, who, on becoming proficient, were to return and instruct their own regiments. One of these depots was at Dum-Dum, and as early as the 24th January General Hearsay, commanding the Presidency division, reported to Head-Quarters that he perceived an 'unpleasant feeling' amongst the Native soldiers learning the new drill, caused by a belief instilled into them 'by designing persons, most likely Brahmins,' that they were to be forced to embrace Christianity, and that for the furtherance of this object the new ball-cartridges received from the arsenal at Fort William were greased with the fat of pigs and cows, with the intention of violating the religious prejudices and destroying the caste of those who would have to bite them.
A little later various acts of incendiarism took place at other stations in the command, and Hearsay became more than ever convinced that there was grave dissatisfaction amongst the troops. He therefore ordered a Court of Inquiry to be held to enable him to ascertain the real cause of the ill-feeling which so evidently existed.
In the General's opinion, the statements recorded in the proceedings of this Court clearly established the fact, that the Native officers and sepoys were undoubtedly imbued with the belief that an unholy mixture of cow's fat and lard had been used in the manufacture of the new cartridge, and he recommended that the rifle ammunition should in future be made up with the same description of paper that had always been used for the musket-cartridge, which, he conceived, would put an end to their suspicions and uneasiness.
The General, however, was told in reply that it was impossible to use the old paper for the new cartridge, as the bore of the rifle being much smaller than that of the musket, thinner paper was indispensable; and he was directed to inform the sepoys that the new paper, though tougher and less bulky, was made of exactly the same material as the old. With respect to the lubricating mixture, he was to announce that the Government had authorized the preparation of a grease, composed of wax and oil, which was to be made up and applied to the cartridges by the men themselves. These orders were carefully explained to the Native troops, but without any good result. Their religious objection to the new cartridge was not removed, and they frankly acknowledged their fears.
On the 6th February an officer of the 34th Native Infantry at Barrackpore was informed by a sepoy of his company that the four Native regiments at that station, fearing that they would be forced to destroy their caste and become Christians, had determined to rise against their officers, and when they had plundered and burned their bungalows, to proceed to Calcutta and try to seize Fort William, or, if that proved beyond their powers, to take possession of the treasury.
This circumstance was reported to Government by General Hearsay[Page 42] on the 11th February. In the same letter he said, 'We have at Barrackpore been living upon a mine ready for explosion,' and he reported a story which had reached him from Dum-Dum of a sepoy, on his way to cook his food with his lota1 full of water, meeting a low-caste man belonging to the arsenal where the Enfield cartridges were being manufactured. This man, it was said, asked the sepoy to allow him to drink from his lota. The sepoy, a Brahmin, refused, saying: 'I have scoured my lota; you will defile it by your touch.' The low-caste man replied: 'You think much of your caste, but wait a little: the Sahib-logue2 will make you bite cartridges soaked in cow's fat, and then where will your caste be?' The sepoy no doubt believed the man, and told his comrades what was about to happen, and the report rapidly spread to other stations.
Outbreak at Berhampur Early in March several of the Hindu sepoys belonging to the Dum-Dum School of Musketry expressed their unwillingness to bite the new cartridge, and the Commandant proposed that the drill should be altered so as to admit of the cartridge being torn instead of bitten. Hearsay supported the proposal, remarking that the new mode of loading need not be made to appear as a concession to agitation, but as part of the drill for the new weapon. Events, however, moved so quickly that, before sanction could be received to this suggestion, the troops at Berhampur had broken into open mutiny. They refused to receive their ammunition, on the ground of its being polluted, even after it was explained to them that they were not being given the new cartridges, but those which had been made up in the regiment a year before. That night they broke open the bells-of-arms, and carried off their muskets.
The Government then became aware that prompt action was necessary. They decided that such open mutiny could not be excused on the grounds of religious scruples, and ordered the regiment to be disbanded. As Berhampur was somewhat isolated, and some distance from European troops, it was arranged that the disbandment should take place at the Head-Quarters of the Presidency division, and the 19th Native Infantry was accordingly ordered to march to Barrackpore.
The revolt of this regiment brought forcibly before Lord Canning and his advisers the perilous position of Lower Bengal, owing to the paucity of European troops. Well may the authorities have been startled, for between Calcutta and Meerut, a distance of 900 miles, there were only four regiments of British infantry and a few scattered Artillerymen, numbering in all less than 5,000, while the Native troops amounted to upwards of 55,000. One of the four Infantry regiments was at Fort William; but as only a portion of it could be spared for the disbandment[Page 43] of the 19th, a special steamer was despatched to Rangoon to bring over the 84th Foot. This regiment reached Calcutta on the 20th March, and on the 31st the disbandment of the mutinous Native Infantry regiment was carried out. The men were paid up and escorted across the river Hughly, whence they were allowed to proceed to their homes. They behaved in the most orderly manner on the march from Berhampur and throughout the proceedings, and as they left the parade-ground they cheered General Hearsay, and wished him a long life, apparently well pleased at being let off so easily.
Mangal Pandy At Barrackpore itself an outbreak had occurred two days before in the 34th Native Infantry. As I have already related, the sepoy, Mangal Pandy, shot at the sergeant-major.3 The Adjutant, on hearing what had happened, galloped to the parade-ground. As he neared the quarter-guard he was fired at, and his horse shot by the mutineer, who then badly wounded him with a sword as he was trying to disentangle himself from the fallen animal. The General now appeared on the scene, and, instantly grasping the position of affairs, rode straight at Mangal Pandy, who stood at bay with his musket loaded, ready to receive him. There was a shot, the whistle of a bullet, and a man fell to the groundóbut not the General; it was the fanatic sepoy himself, who at the last moment had discharged the contents of his musket into his own breast! The wretched man had been worked up to a pitch of madness by the sepoys of his regiment, who stood by while he attacked the Adjutant, and would have allowed him to kill their Commander, but they were too great cowards to back him up openly. Mangal Pandy was not dead. He was taken to the hospital, and eventually was tried by a Court-Martial composed of Native officers, sentenced to death, and hanged in the presence of all the troops at Barrackpore. The Native officer in command of the quarter-guard met the same fate, and the regiment was then disbanded.
The orders for the disbandment of the 19th and 34th Native Infantry were directed to be read to every Native corps in the service, and it was hoped that the quick retribution which had overtaken these regiments would check the spirit of mutiny throughout the army. For a time this hope appeared to be justified. Satisfactory reports were received from different parts of Bengal, and anything like a serious or general outbreak was certainly not contemplated by the authorities. General Hearsay reported to Government that he had directed the European troops, temporarily located at Barrackpore, to return to their respective cantonments, as he did not think it probable that he would require their presence again. About the same time Sir John Lawrence, after visiting the Musketry School at Sialkot, wrote hopefully to the Governor-General of the aspect of affairs in the Punjab. Lord Canning[Page 44] and his advisers, owing to these favourable reports, were on the point of sending the 84th Foot back to Burma, when news reached them from Upper India of the calamitous occurrences at Meerut and Delhi.
The Meerut division was commanded by Major-General Hewitt, an officer of fifty years' service, and the station of Meerut by Brigadier Archdale Wilson, Commandant of the Bengal Artillery. The garrison consisted of the 6th Dragoon Guards, a troop of Horse Artillery, a battery of Field Artillery, a company of Foot Artillery, the 1st Battalion 60th Rifles, and three Native corpsóthe 3rd Light Cavalry, and the 11th and 20th Native Infantry.
Towards the end of April incendiary fires began to take place, and the Native soldiers evinced more or less disrespect in their manner towards their officers. These signs of disaffection were followed by the refusal of some of the troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry to receive their cartridges, although the commanding officer carefully explained to them that they were not the new cartridges, but the very same they had always used, and that according to the new drill they were not required to bite them when loading their carbines.
A Court of Inquiry was held to investigate the matter, composed entirely of Native officers, three of whom belonged to the offending regiment. The verdict of the Court was that no adequate cause could be assigned for the disobedience of orders in refusing to receive and use the cartridges that were served out. 'The only conclusion the Court can arrive at in regard to this point is that a report seems to have got abroad which in some vague form attaches suspicion of impurity to the materials used for making these cartridges, but the Court are unanimously of opinion that there is nothing whatever objectionable in the cartridges of the 3rd Regiment Light Cavalry, and that they may be freely received and used as heretofore without in the slightest degree affecting any religious scruple of either a Hindu or Mussulman, and if any pretence contrary to that is urged, that it must be false.' This opinion, it must be remembered, was the opinion of Natives, not Europeans, and was given only sixteen days before the outbreak occurred at Meerut.
Court-Martial at Meerut After carefully reviewing the evidence brought before the Court, and considering the opinion expressed by the Native officers who composed it, the Commander-in-Chief decided to try the eighty-five men who had refused to receive the cartridges by a General Court-Martial composed entirely of their own countrymen. The Court was formed of six Mahomedans and nine Hindus, six Native officers being brought over from Delhi for the purpose.
The prisoners were tried on the 8th May, found guilty, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for ten years.
The following morning there was a parade of the whole of the Meerut garrison, and the finding and sentence of the Court were read to the[Page 45] men. The eighty-five troopers were then stripped of their uniform and fetters were fastened on their ankles. As each culprit was marched forward, he called on his comrades to rescue him, but no response came from the ranks; and when the ceremony was finished the prisoners were marched down the line and escorted to the gaol. In his report of the parade to Army Head-Quarters, General Hewitt stated that 'the majority of the prisoners seemed to feel acutely the degradation to which their folly and insubordination had brought them. The remainder of the troops are behaving steady and soldier-like.'
The action of the Meerut authorities in putting the prisoners in irons on the parade-ground, in the presence of their regiment, before being made over to the civil power, met with the disapproval of the Commander-in-Chief and the Governor-General. The former expressed his regret at the unusual procedure. The latter was more pronounced, and thus expressed himself: 'The riveting of the men's fetters on parade, occupying, as it did, several hours, in the presence of many who were already ill-disposed and many who believed in the cartridge fable, must have stung the brigade to the quick. The consigning the eighty-five prisoners after such a ceremony to gaol with no other than a Native guard over them was folly that is inconceivable.'
The procedure was no doubt unusual, and it certainly was most imprudent, under the circumstances, to trust the gaol to a Native guard. I think also, considering the number of the prisoners, and the length of time necessary for riveting the fetters, that it was not judicious to subject the troops to such a severe and protracted trial of their nerves and patience; but, before acquiescing in Lord Canning's sweeping condemnation, it should be considered that the object of the punishment was to produce a deterrent effect on those who were likely to follow the bad example that had been set them, and as the offence of the troopers had been public and ostentatious, General Hewitt no doubt thought it right to make the punishment as marked and public as possible.
The next day was Sunday, and outwardly the cantonment of Meerut had assumed its usual appearance of Sabbath calm; but there was an undercurrent of unrestóthere was considerable commotion in the Native bazaars, which were unusually crowded, and had not the European officers been blinded by over-confidence in their men, signs might have been perceived amongst the Native soldiers of preparation for some untoward event.
Mutiny at Meerut It was late in the day before the storm burst. The Chaplain of Meerut tells us that he was about to start with his wife for evening service, when the Native nurse warned them of coming danger, beseeching her mistress to remain indoors, and, on being asked to explain, saying there would be a fight with the sepoys. The idea seemed incredible, and the Chaplain would have paid no attention to the warning had not his wife been greatly alarmed. At her earnest request[Page 46] he took his two children with them in the carriage, instead of leaving them in the house with the ayah, as had been intended. It was soon apparent that the ayah had not spoken without reason, for before the church was reached sounds of musketry were heard and columns of smoke were seen rising above the quarter occupied by the Native troops. As the Chaplain arrived at the church enclosure, the buglers of the 60th Rifles, who were drawn up ready to enter the church, sounded the 'alarm' and the 'assembly.' The parade was dismissed, and as the British soldiers rushed to the barracks for their arms and ammunition, the congregation rapidly dispersed, some to their homes, others to seek safety in the nearest quarter-guard.
It was the custom before the Mutiny for our soldiers to attend Divine Service unarmed, save with their side-arms. The Native soldiers were aware of this, and they no doubt calculated on the 60th Rifles being safe and almost defenceless inside the church as soon as the bells ceased tolling. What they were not aware of was the fact that, owing to the lengthening days and the increasing heat, the evening church parade had been ordered half an hour later than on the previous Sunday. The mutineers therefore showed their hand half an hour too soon, and as they galloped down the 60th Rifles lines they came upon the men fully armed and rapidly falling in. Being thus disappointed in their hope of surprising the white soldiers, the 3rd Cavalry proceeded without a moment's delay to the gaol, broke into the cells, and released their eighty-five comrades and all the other prisoners, about 1,200 in number.
The Work of Destruction While this was going on, the two Native Infantry regiments assembled on their respective parade-grounds in wild excitement, discharging their muskets at random, and setting fire to their own huts. The British officers, hearing the tumult, hastened to their lines and did their best to restore order, but in vain. The sepoys had gone too far, and were absolutely deaf to threats and entreaties. They did not attack their own officers, but warned them to get away, telling them the Company's 'raj'4 was at an end. Their clemency, however, did not extend to officers of other regiments.
Colonel Finnis, who had served forty years with the sepoys, and firmly believed in their loyalty, was the first victim; he fell riddled with bullets from a volley fired by the 20th, while exhorting the men of his own regiment (the 11th) to be true to their salt. The work of destruction then began in earnest, in which the population from the bazaars and the neighbouring villages eagerly joined, for (as the Commissioner reported) they were armed and ready for the onslaught before the sepoys commenced the attack, plainly showing how perfectly they were aware of what was about to happen. They poured forth in thousands from every direction, and in a surprisingly short time almost every bungalow belonging to a British officer serving with Native troops[Page 47] was gutted and burnt. Besides Colonel Finnis, seven officers, three officers' wives, two children, and every stray European man, woman and child in the outskirts of the cantonments were massacred.
It was now time for the sepoys to think of themselves. They had thrown off all allegiance to the Sarkar;5 they had been guilty of murder, robbery, and incendiarism, and they knew that retribution must speedily overtake them if they remained at Meerut; they therefore lost no time in making their escape towards Delhi. They had had ample opportunity for consultation with the Native officers from that station, who had come to Meerut as members of the Court-Martial on the men of the 3rd Light Cavalry, and they knew perfectly well that the troops at Delhi were prepared to help them to seize the magazine and resuscitate the old Moghul dynasty. 'To Delhi! To Delhi!' was their cry, and off they went, leaving naught behind them in their lines but the smouldering fires of their officers' houses and the lifeless bodies of their English victims.
Want of Energy But it will be asked, Where were the British troops? Where indeed? On the alarm being given, the British troops got under arms 'in an incredibly short time,' but there was unaccountable delay in marching them to the spot where their help was so greatly needed. The Carabineers occupied barracks within a few hundred yards of the Native Infantry lines, the 60th Rifles were only about a mile and a half away, and the Artillery lay just beyond the 60th. The Brigadier (Wilson) despatched one company of the Rifles to guard the treasury, another he left to protect the barracks, and with the remainder, accompanied by the Carabineers and Artillery, he leisurely proceeded towards the Native Infantry lines. It was almost dark when he arrived, but there was light enough to discern, from the ruined houses and the dead bodies of the murdered officers lying about, in what a merciless spirit the revolt had been perpetrated. A few shots were fired from behind the burning huts, but not a single living being was visible, except two or three Native troopers who were dimly perceptible in the distance coming from the direction of the gaol, and it was evident that the sepoys as a body had vanished. But whither? A lengthened discussion took place as to what was the best course to pursue, which only resulted in the troops being marched back to their own end of the cantonment and bivouacking on the mall for the night. The General and Brigadier, misled by the tumult in the city, which they could distinctly hear, came to the conclusion that the sepoys had congregated within its walls and might shortly be expected to attack that part of the station where the European residents chiefly lived. It was not discovered till the next morning that all three Native regiments had made for Delhi.
It is easy to be wise after the event, but one cannot but feel that[Page 48] there was unaccountable, if not culpable, want of energy displayed by the Meerut authorities on this disastrous occasion. The officer in command was afterwards severely censured for not acting with sufficient promptitude on first hearing of the outbreak; for not trying to find out where the mutineers had gone; and for not endeavouring to overtake them before they reached Delhi. The Government of India finally signified their disapproval by removing General Hewitt from his command.
Wilson, the Brigadier, like everyone else at Meerut, appears to have been completely taken by surprise. But why this should have been the case, after the warning that had been given by the mutinous conduct of the 3rd Cavalry, and why no steps should have been taken after the exasperating parade on the 9th to guard against a possible, if not probable, outbreak, is difficult to understand; and can only be accounted for by that blind faith in the Native soldier, and disbelief in his intention or ability to revolt, which led to such unfortunate results all over India.
The following story will exemplify how completely the authorities at Meerut were blinded by this misplaced confidence. On the afternoon of the 9th the British officers of the 3rd Light Cavalry went to the gaol to pay up the prisoners belonging to their regiment. When Lieutenant Hugh Gough,6 who was one of these officers, returned to his house, a Hindu Native officer, belonging to the troop Gough was temporarily commanding, told him that the men had determined to rescue their comrades, and that the Native guard over the gaol had promised to help them. Gough went at once to his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Carmichael Smyth, and reported what he had heard, but the Colonel pooh-poohed the idea as ridiculous, and told Gough he must not give credence to anything so monstrous.
Later in the day Gough met Brigadier Wilson and told him of the warning which had been given to him, without, however, producing any impression; the information was received with the same contemptuous disbelief displayed by Colonel Carmichael Smyth.
The following day (Sunday), late in the afternoon, the same Native officer, attended by two troopers, galloped to Gough's house, shouting to him that the hala7 had begun, and that the Native Infantry were firing on their officers. Gough mounted his horse, and, accompanied by the three Cavalry soldiers, proceeded as quickly as possible to the Infantry parade-ground, where he arrived just as the wild scene of excitement and confusion I have before described was at its height. The sepoys, some in uniform, some in their own Native clothes, were rushing about in the maddest disorder, yelling, shouting, and dancing as if possessed, while the flames from the burning huts shed a lurid[Page 49] light on the demoniacal proceedings.
Hugh Gough's Experiences When Gough's party appeared in sight, the sepoys called to the three troopers to get out of the way, as they wanted to shoot the sahib. No notice being taken of this warning, they fired straight at the whole party, but without hitting anyone. Gough, seeing things had gone too far for him to do any good, rode off with his little escort to his own lines, where he found the men busy saddling their horses, and helping themselves to ammunition from the regimental magazine, which they had broken open. He endeavoured in vain to allay the excitement; one or two shots were fired at him by recruits, but no determined attempt was made to take his life, and at last the Native officers combined to force him away, saying they could no longer answer for his safety.
It was then all but dark. Gough rode off towards the European lines, still accompanied by his trusty Native escort, and on his way came upon an enormous crowd of people from the bazaar, armed with swords, sticks, and anything they could get hold of, who tried to stop him. Through these he charged, closely followed by the Native officer and two troopers, who did not leave him until he was within sight of the Artillery mess. Then they pulled up, and said they could go no further. Gough did all he could to persuade them to remain with him, but to no purpose. They told him it was impossible for them to separate themselves from their friends and relations, and making the officer they had so carefully protected a respectful salaam, they rode off to join their mutinous comrades. Gough never heard of them again, though he tried hard to trace what had become of the men who proved themselves such 'friends in need.'
However much the authorities at Meerut deserved to be censured for their dilatoriness in dealing with the revolt in the first instance, and their lack of energy in not trying to discover in what direction the mutineers had gone, I doubt whether anything would have been gained by following them up, or whether it would have been possible to overtake them before they reached Delhi. Only a very few European Cavalry were available for pursuit, for the Carabineers, having lately arrived in India, were composed mainly of recruits still in the riding-school, and their horses for the most part were quite unbroken. These few, with the six Horse Artillery guns, might have been despatched; but the mutineers had a considerable start, the Cavalry could not have been overtaken, and as soon as the Infantry became aware that they were being followed, they would have scattered themselves over the country, the features of which were familiar to them, and, favoured by the darkness, could have defied pursuit. Delhi is forty miles from Meerut, and it would not have been possible for the 60th Rifles, marching in the terrible heat of the month of May, to have reached that place before the next evening (the 11th), and, as was afterwards ascertained, the work of murder and devastation there began on the morning of that[Page 50] day. The three Native Infantry regiments and the battery of Artillery stationed at Delhi were prepared to join the insurgent troopers from Meerut directly they arrived. The magazine, with its vast stores of war material, was in the hands of the King, and the 150,000 inhabitants of the city were ready to assist in the massacre of the white men and women, and the destruction of their property.
Nothing Could Arrest the Mutiny After careful consideration of all the circumstances of the revolt at Meerut, I have come to the conclusion that it would have been futile to have sent the small body of mounted troops available in pursuit of the mutineers on the night of the 10th May, and that, considering the state of feeling throughout the Native Army, no action, however prompt, on the part of the Meerut authorities could have arrested the Mutiny. The sepoys had determined to throw off their allegiance to the British Government, and the when and the how were merely questions of time and opportunity.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER VII
[Footnote 1: A metal drinking vessel, which the Hindu religiously guards against defilement, and to which he clings as a cherished possession when he has nothing else belonging to him in the world.]
[Footnote 2: European officers.]
[Footnote 3: Each Hindustani regiment had a European sergeant-major and quartermaster-sergeant.]
[Footnote 4: Rule.]
[Footnote 5: British Government.]
[Footnote 6: Now Lieutenant-General Sir Hugh Gough, V.C., G.C.B.]
[Footnote 7: Tumult.]